In the late fall I was sitting here at my desktop after dark when I heard an owl in my back yard. I knew it was an owl because he sounded just like the ones in the movies. I don’t think I had encountered one in person ever.
But I didn’t know what species he might be. I spent a good hour listening to various owls on Cornell University’s site All About Birds site, and the owl cooperated by demonstrating his distinctive call many times. He came another night not long afterward. For a while that first night I thought perhaps he was a Barred Owl, but eventually I knew for sure that he was a Great Horned Owl.
In my research I found advice about how to build a platform for this owl to nest on, how high up to attach it, and that it should go up in November so that the owls might find it when they go looking for good nesting sites in February. I did wish that I could start on one more project like that, but it was obviously not the right thing for me this year.
Probably everyone has more familiarity with owls than I do, but if you’d like to hear the calls of five owls this is a helpful Audubon page that limits itself to just that many: Identify Five Owls
You can guess how honored I felt that such a creature had visited me, even if he couldn’t be seen. His voice seemed full of romance, and let me in on the secret drama of the night. Of the five owls on the linked page, his call is surely the most pleasing, low and soft. So many owls are screechy.
Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about an owl’s voice. His own voice is more pleasant to me than that of the Barred Owl that he writes about; maybe that’s why someone came up with the explanation for a child, and why I like his poem so much. You can listen to him reading it: here.
A BARRED OWL
The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”
Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.
-Richard Wilbur, from Mayflies: New Poems and Translations. © 2000